Thursday, November 17, 2016

Ultrarunners on the Coldwater Trail

When autumn leaves begin turning here in the Pacific NW, it's always a frantic scramble to visit all my favorite fall trails before the colors begin to fade.  One fall hike that's always on the top of this list is the loop around Coldwater Lake.

Coldwater Lake

Coldwater Lake is located in SW Washington, under the shadow of nearby Mt St Helens.  Formed on that fateful day when the mountain erupted, the shoreline of this long, slender body of water bursts into a kaleidoscope of fall finery during the month of October.

The lower forest was still green

I have an autumn tradition of traveling the entire trail circling this lovely lake  (See this post from 2014).  However, due to last October's SW Utah trip, it had been a couple years since I'd done my annual trek.  I wasn't about to miss it again!

Lots of tiny toads!

But this year's hike would have a twist.  Instead of circumnavigating Coldwater Lake, I decided to follow it's south ridge and then continue on the Coldwater Trail to St Helens Lake.  Although I'd reached this stunning mountain lake via the Boundary Trail from Johnston Ridge Observatory, the Coldwater Trail was yet another option.  A path I'd never hiked, it was time to check it off my list.

Bare ridgeline

So one blustery early October Saturday morning had me pulling into Coldwater Lake's boat ramp parking area.  Needing to use the "ladies room" before beginning my hike, I wanted to take advantage of its bathroom facilities.  This time of year, I'm normally greeted with an empty parking lot, so you can imagine my surprise when I found several tents, canopies, vehicles, and people milling around the restroom.  I discovered an ultrarunning race was taking place that day, with the boast ramp serving as one of the aid stations.

Coldwater Lake from on high

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, ultrarunning refers to any running race longer than marathon length (26.2 miles).  Ultras, as they are called, range in distance from 50 kilometers to 100 miles and beyond, and are usually run on trails.  A nearby sign proclaimed today's event as the "Bigfoot 120 Endurance Run."

Festive fall tree

The Coldwater Trailhead was a mere mile down the road, so leaving the race crowd behind, I made the short dash to its parking area.  Glancing at the ominously cloudy sky,  I made sure my rain jacket and pack cover were stashed inside my backpack.  Wet weather was forecast, and I crossed my fingers in hopes of a dry hike.

Old, weathered stumps

My trail climbed almost immediately through thick second-growth woods, their leaves still green.  The forest floor was alive with dozens of tiny toads, hopping madly to avoid my footsteps.  A sign at the trailhead had ominously warned of bear and cougar sightings, so I made it a habit to whistle, call out, and clack my trekking poles when passing through areas of thick vegetation.

Bulldozer upended from the eruption

Climbing to the top of the first ridge, I passed by some old logging machinery, partially buried by the 1980 eruption.  Traversing across this barren spine, I was treated to spectacular panoramic views of Coldwater Lake, far below.

Technicolor hillside

But, aside from a few trees displaying yellow leaves, the fabulous fall colors of the huckleberry bushes were absent.  I wasn't sure if my timing was early or late but the three-mile trudge across that high ridge wasn't as scenic compared to prior years.

Spellbinding views

Although my path across the ridge traced the same route I'd taken on past round-the-lake ventures, things were about to change.  Reaching the first trail intersection, nicknamed "Tractor Junction" after a nearby upended bulldozer, I diverged from my usual path and continued to follow the Coldwater Trail.

Amazing fall colors

Thus far, autumn colors had been kind of ho-hum.  And, although I'd hoped to see some of the ultra race participants, none had yet passed by.  But things were about to change in a big way.

Patchwork quilt of color

From Tractor Junction I climbed steeply through a narrow, brushy path.  A lone runner approached from the opposite direction and I politely stepped aside, allowing him to pass.

A runner admires the view

The clouds thickened, and fog began ghosting over adjacent hilltops.  And just as I was beginning to think my long trek would be for naught, I topped out on a ridge.  And, oh what a glorious view awaited on the other side!

Bright vine maple leaves

The adjacent mountain slopes were colored in a patchwork of brilliant oranges, reds, and golds.  Low-lying clouds draped the very ridgetops and lazily drifted into crevices.  These mountains sloped down into a deep valley, with a creek running along its very bottom.  The opposite ridge was littered with downed trees, a casualty of the 1980 eruption.

Downed trees from the eruption

I just stood there open-mouthed.  Then my camera came out and a long photo session began!  As I was firing away, a couple more runners passed by, all of them stopping in mid-stride at this amazing sight.

Golden ridge

Continuing my climb towards Coldwater Peak and St Helens Lake, the scenery just kept getting better.  Crimson huckleberry bushes accented the golden grassy hillsides.  And the higher I traveled, the more runners I saw. 

Good views, despite the fog

The first few racers encountered were your stereotypical young and lean runner.  But soon the main pack began passing by and I noticed that these participants were all ages, shapes and sizes.  These people were so inspiring!  I was particularly impressed by an older, amazingly fit looking couple, probably well into their 60s.  The man and woman came traipsing by, smiling broadly, looking like they were having the time of their life. 

Can you spot the runner?

I asked a few of the runners how far they had to go.  I learned the race offered two distances - a roughly 100 kilometer course (about 68 miles I was told) and a 120 mile option.  The 120-mile racers had started the previous night near Mt Adams, and the 100k racers had started that morning near Elk Pass, about 26 miles away.  Participants would be on the move all this day and night, following the hiking trails around Mt St Helens, finishing the following afternoon at the Marble Mountain Sno-Park on the mountain's south side.

Fog closed in the higher I climbed

Although the trek to St Helens Lake seemed to take forever, and the fog and cold began creeping in, the fabulous scenery and company of these amazing runners kept my spirits high.  Climbing the final pitch to St Helens Lake, I was disappointed to find it cloaked in a thick fog.  No grand photos today!  I could barely make out the lake through all this gloom.

I could barely see St Helens Lake

After a quick snack and even quicker potty break (I lucked out with just enough time between runners to discreetly "take care of business") it was time to retrace my steps back to the trailhead.

Exquisite red huckleberry leaves

Although the wind came up and the sky threatened rain, my trip back through this stark scenic plain was just as enjoyable as the climb.  Overcast skies made brilliant fall colors pop, and a steady stream of runners kept me company.

More runners passing me by

Although I didn't take many photos of the runners themselves, one woman, seeing my big camera, asked if I was the race photographer.  (Hmmmm....a new career?)

Back past the amazing ridgeline

As I approached Tractor Junction, the number of runners slowly petered out, until only a few stragglers remained.  At the junction, the race course and I parted ways, with the runners continuing around the lake, and me heading back along the south ridge.  Alone again, I climbed back up the colorless, bleak ridge with three tough, lonely miles yet to go.

Fog obscuring the scenery

Boy did I miss the company of those runners!  Trudging through the endless trail, feet now hurting, the last three miles were brutal.  Remembering the trailhead wildlife warnings, I belted out "YMCA" (the only song I could remember at the time) to ward off imagined bears and mountain lions.  With about a mile to go, the skies opened up, necessitating a quick break to don raingear and cover my pack.

Vine maple close-up

But thankfully the parking lot, and my car finally came into view.  After swapping dry shoes and clothes, I headed back to the boat launch for one final potty break before the long ride home.  Arriving to a nearly full parking area, the race's aid station was in full swing.  I even recognized some of the same runners I'd seen earlier on the trail.  They were fueling up and heading back out on the trail for a very long night.  As the rain began to fall in earnest, I was glad it was them and not me!

Coldwater Lake's glorious panorama

New trail explored.  Amazing scenery captured.  Inspiration provided by incredible ultramarathon runners.  Attitude adjusted for the week ahead.  Another wildly successful hike!

Stats:  12.5 miles round-trip, 2500 feet elevation gain


  1. So much amazing nature there. Love the specks of fall color during the climb. The cut down trees are a spooky sight as is the fog, but all make for very interesting photography. Kudos to the hikers and runners there. It's a steep climb in some places.

    Mersad Donko Photography

  2. As caminhadas pela montanha com as belas cores do Outono é sempre um grande prazer ver a natureza a mudar de cores e quando chegar o Inverno novas cores virão.
    Um abraço e bom fim-de-semana.

  3. We have cycling,running and mountain ultra races here but I've never felt tempted or inspired to join them. It must be addictive if folk are willing to do it repeatedly and put themselves willingly through so much pain and effort. I prefer a sedate plod these days.
    The arctic is unusually warm at the moment thanks to larger loops in the jet stream which might be affecting the temperatures elsewhere and autumn colours. Very late fall here lasting well into November. Nice photos of a unique area.

  4. Hello, I always enjoy your reports on your hikes. The views and Autumn colors are fabulous. Kudos to these long distance runners. Beautiful photos. Happy Friday, enjoy your weekend!

  5. Linda, all I can say if wow! Thanks so much!

  6. What a breathtaking, glorious series, Linda! And the little toad is adorable! :)

  7. All the time I was reading this and enjoying the views I thought about the elevation. Your last sentence gave me the info. Great trip under some trying circumstances.

  8. Wonderful scenes - much too good to pass by in a hurry.

  9. Interesting walk and good to see vegitationa and trees growing round the area of the eruption. You god do worse that take photos of the runners on the trail as they would purchase the photos

  10. Loved every bit of this hike and your mingling with the ultra runners. When I was in my 50's, I crewed for a gal who ran the Leadville 100. My 10 mile segment with her started at 2AM when she'd already gone 80 miles. It was quite an experience! She finished, and we were all so proud of her - I think she weighed 100 pounds soaking wet - tiny but determined. Great views and fabulous photos Linda.

  11. You're inspiring yourself! 12.5 miles up and down the mountains! And such scenery, great hike!

  12. That is a long hike, but the photos are lovely. I wonder what this trail looked like before the eruption:)

  13. Hi! It's nice to go hiking among autumn leaves. The photo of Coldwater Lake from on high is very cool. I also enjoyed your former posts. Looking your photos of No name lake,I was touched very much. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Fabulous pictures, as usual. Thanks for sharing. :-)

  15. What a breathtaking area! I loved your photos. And that little toad. So cute!

  16. What incredible views! And the toad...great shot!

    I've always been fascinated and in awe of ultrarunners. Just amazing bodies/stamina/endurance...made for running!

  17. I can't even fathom the running part, but the scenery was the long views.....I'm so glad we were able to follow along. And that I say these on a big much beauty and especially in the details.

  18. Wow - both the fall colors and the views are spectacular. We have ultrarunners here too, but I'm not built for any kind of running!

  19. Amazing photographs, Linda! The runners in some shots lend great perspective and scale to the views; nicely done. I've had a picnic at Coldwater Lake, but have never done any hiking there. Maybe next year!

  20. What a fabulous hike you took us on. Super pics and post, Linda.
    Last time I was up there I did see a bear and he/she saw me. We both slowly backed away. I always carry pepper spray, glad I didn't need to try it out.

  21. When I lived in Alaska we sang all the time to warn bears. Sadly the only songs that came to mind were those like YMCA!

  22. Aside from one short day hike done with some guests from Holland who were not hikers, Mt St. Helens remains one of those elusive destinations for me. But after looking at your pictures of Coldwater, lake, I simply have to go.
    P.S. Your story of being surprised by an ultramarathon reminds me of a hike we did in Silver Falls SP, the day we went they were running a marathon and we got to hike while stepping aside for about 1500 of our marathoner friends. I can definitely relate to your story, Linda

  23. The shots with the mist made me laugh. Multiply the mist by about 1000 times and you have a good idea of what my one and only day (so far) on Mt. St. Helen was like!!

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  24. That toad is way too cute! I just love the forests you walk through on your way up mountainsides--they always look so inviting. I haven't been up to MSH in years--in fact the last time we were up there was a year or so after the eruption. Beautiful color!!

  25. You would make an amazing race photographer!

  26. Very nice set of pictures - especially like the second

  27. I've just found time to do a catch up read of your posts. Wonderful as always. I was right there with you on this one.

  28. Loveeeee FALL! Thanks for taking us along virtually!

  29. Fantastic photos! Your hiking endurance is to be applauded. The tree stubs remind me of places I've seen here that suffered fires, but it is good to see all the new growth that 435 plus years has brought to the area!

  30. I'd probably still be there looking at everything. lol. Its amazing how nature has recovered after the blast yet you can still see signs of it too.

  31. I'm beginning to suspect that there are no ugly hikes in Oregon.


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